What Human Trafficking is Not

Originally published on MeetJustice.org on August 4, 2011.

The discussion around human trafficking is all tangled up – it’s messy, muddled, and sometimes confusing. Terms are intermingled and exchanged for one another. Why? It’s a broad issue that encompasses many different factors. Lead Researcher of the Georgia Demand Study Dr. Alex Trouteaud commented that human trafficking is like “…a whole grocery store worth of items, and they aren’t even in the same department.” For a basic run down of human trafficking, check out Robyn Dooley’s blog, “Human Trafficking- what is it and does it exist?” This blog will not be defining what human trafficking is- instead, it will be defining what it’s not.

Human Smuggling and/or Illegal Immigration

Though human trafficking and human smuggling often arise from similar conditions like extreme poverty, lack of economic opportunities, civil unrest, and political uncertainty [1], the two are not the same.

Trafficking, as defined by the United Nations convention against Transnational Organized Crime, is “…the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation…” [2]

Human smuggling, although equally concealed and driven by large criminal organizations, is less insidious a crime. Smuggling of persons is not conducted with the ultimate goal of exploitation. It’s defined by the Smuggling Protocol as “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident…” [2] Whereas human smuggling involves the movement of a person or persons from one place to another, human trafficking requires no movement at all. A person can be trafficked in his or her own community.

Coercion is at the core of human trafficking, along with eventual exploitation. Like human trafficking, the definition of coercion is inclusive of many things. It isn’t limited to physical violence or restraint. According to Hilary Axam, Director of the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit at the U.S Department of Justice, coercion includes:

  • Force, Threats of Force and Restraint
  • Serious physical harm or non physical harm
  • Abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process
  • Any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause harm
In one particularly disturbing Atlanta case, a trafficker known as Jimmie Jones, AKA Mike Spade, manipulated girls into signing false contracts to be models and then ordered them to perform as strippers. He used a famous model to assure the girls that this was a legitimate part of doing business. He recorded their performance and afterward used the videotapes as blackmail in order to get them to take their stripping a step further and perform sex acts on his clientele. In order to force his victims into prostitution, Jones used coercion- first through false legal obligation, and secondly through blackmail. While Jones also physically assaulted his victims, prosecutors described the nonphysical threats he used to control victims as coercive in nature, as well.


At best, says Dr. Troutead, prostitution “is an act of economic desperation”. However, the purpose of this article is not to peel back the layers of prostitution and its history as a commercially exploitative industry that quite literally, though temporarily, involves the sale of one human being’s body to another. Whether or not prostitution is a victimless crime will not be discussed here.
The first question that people unfamiliar with sex trafficking ask is usually, “Why don’t they just run away if they don’t want to be there?” This question is one of the underlying myths that allow human trafficking to operate on the level of secrecy and shame that it does. However- human trafficking is involuntary. Sex Trafficking, in particular, fosters a sense of guilt, shame, and disgust that often further entraps victims who may be faced with rejection once they return home with the stigma of prostitution. Victims are compelled to do as they are told and warned that going to the authorities will get them into deeper trouble (See above description, example and definitions of coercion). Some case studies describe police impersonators having been brought in to rape victims to create paranoia and distrust of the authorities.
Secondly, the sex trade is not the only arena in which trafficking of humans occurs. There have been many incidences of forced labor that have been accounted for in the United States, and likely many others that have gone unnoticed. Recently, the largest forced labor suit in U.S History has been in the news:


Human trafficking has been steadily increasing in awareness, and has it has done so, it has gained many supporters, skeptics, and denouncers. Claims range in ferocity: from attacking statistics as being inflated to claiming sex/labor trafficking is too “difficult” a crime for it to be anything but rare. There are even accusations that the anti- human trafficking movement is a front to siphon money from the government.
Often times, critics will point out that organizations working to stop trafficking or rehabilitate its victims do so to earn money. They fail to point out that their work to disprove human trafficking also earns them money. Village Voice Media recently published an article in response to mounting pressure to better regulate their adult services section for commercially, sexually exploitative ads featuring underage minors. They challenged reports, citing the numbers as “made up”, with “no real science” behind them. (See Lead Researcher Alex Trouteaud’s response here) However, there are multiple studies from different sources ( The U.S State Department, U.S Department of Justice and other government agencies, several independent research groups unrelated to the sex industry, and colleges of law) to prove that trafficking for the purposes of both forced prostitution and forced labor is a real problem in the United States as well as abroad. So far, there have been few concerted efforts that have proven that this is not the case – simply accusations from sources that have a stake in the game.
Likewise, trafficking for forced labor is often casually dismissed as disgruntled or undocumented workers squabbling for better pay. However, it’s a far darker reality than that. Male and female workers alike report inhumane living and working conditions, sexual and physical assault, threats of legal involvement, and physical restraint. Read up on a few cases here:

An anomaly

Because human trafficking is so complex an issue and so well-hidden a crime, it’s difficult to identify a hard, fast statistic about the number of victims that are exploited each year. However, by now, we know that human trafficking is not a third-world issue. The 2011 US Department of Justice reported that federal anti-trafficking task forces opened over 2500 cases of human trafficking between 2008 and 2010. [2] This number doesn’t take into account the many cases that fly under the radar. The same report indicated that the victims were not only immigrants from other countries: many were Americans- and of that number, many were children.
83% of victims in confirmed sex-trafficking incidents were identified as U.S. citizens… nearly half of these involved victims under the age of 18. [2]
The United States is a destination country for trafficked victims as well as a source of sex tourists that travel abroad to have sex with minors and vulnerable populations in countries with looser policies regarding the prostitution of adults and minors.
Are we a society that tolerates the commercial exploitation of children? Adults? If so, we need not take action. If not, we must act – you must act.

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